THE first thing you need to know about Nobu is that it is not a Japanese sushi joint. Owner Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is Japanese-born, yes, but it was while working as a chef in Lima, Peru for just three years that he first started introducing Peruvian influences into his cuisine, culminating in the arresting cooking style that came to characterise the Nobu style years later.
So Nobu is a Perusian-Japanese hybrid – famous all over the world – where there are dishes in many styles, including a hot selection of truly memorable flavours and textures, and the man in the background is actor Robert DeNiro, who became involved as a partner during chef Nobu’s stint in LA where he had opened his Matsuhisa restaurant, and where DeNiro had become a star customer.
The Cape Town version, based at the One & Only Hotel at the V&A Waterfront, is the third of the world-wide chain to be set in Sol Kerzner’s hotels. The others are at the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai and in the Bahamas.
Nobu in Cape Town is a rather grand affair, as is everything at this imposing hotel. You enter Nobu via the Vista bar, an enormous bar-lounge with a glass “wall” from ceiling to floor that shows off the mountain beyond the hotel. At the opposite side of the Vista is Reuben’s, where local boy Reuben Riffel operates his Waterfront eatery in the spot vacated by Gordon Ramsay’s short-lived Maze. But Nobu has stayed put, and on the night we were there (a Wednesday) it was packed with diners, which is good to see. Cape Town needs a sprinkling of such world-class, renowned and recognisable restaurants if the city is to continue to forge a space as an international tourism destination of note.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Nobu, even if it is a place that many would not often be able to afford. If cost is an issue, think of Nobu as one of the places you go to for a very special occasion. For a serious gastronome, the place is a must.
There’s something rather Seventies about the décor style, lots of brown broken and geometric shapes, extraordinarily high double-volume ceiling and service that is utterly expemplary. As you’re ushered to your table, cries of “Irrashaimase” are thrown back and forth across the room by the staff. It means “welcome to our house” and is quite sweet, if a little startling at first.
Your waiter then explains to you how Nobu works. There are three styles of dining. One is “omakase”, a seven-coruse “tasting experience” in which you get three dishes of cold sashimi appetisers, two hot dishes (fish and meat), then sushi and miso soup, and ending with dessert. Our waiter explained that the omakase option was essentially a “summary of the whole menu”.
The second dining style is (as he put it) “you tell us what you like and don’t like and we’ll make up a menu for you”. So I went with the omakase option, while Di pointed out that she does not eat raw fish, and they used that as a starting point for her surprise menu.
The fourth option is simply toru through the menu yourself, including their signature dishes, and decide – essentially, a table d’hote choice.
I state quite candidly that I am not a sushu fan, surprising as that might be. This is not because it is raw fish – I had several pieces of sashimi and other uncooked fishy items at Nobu and thoroughly enjoyed them – but I like my “raw” fish to have something done to it, whether marinated, dressed in something to enhance the flavour or cured with citrus or alcohol. But Nobu has plenty to offer my palate and I would readily return to try more of their dishes, not least the “hot dishes” selection of things such as king crab with a creamy spicy sauce, “fish and chips Nobu style”, soft shell crab or shrimp and lobster with a spicy dressing. Little clue as to what is in the sauces and derssings is given on the printed menu, but your waiter details the ingredients when serving or taking your order.
Every morsel was brilliant, which is not something you can often say of even the finest restaurant or of the most famous chef’s cuisine. And there were many dishes, thankfully in small portions, as they endeavoured to give us a broad flavour of the menu, which has several sections, including special appetisers (such as Nobu tacos, various ceviches, sashimi and tempura), new-style sashimi, tiradito (a Peruvian style of raw fish), oysters in various styles, sooups and rice, salads, prawn tempura, sushi rolls, kushiyaki (skewer-grilled meat or seafood), tempura, and anti cucho Peruvian style skewers of chickan, salmon or beef.
It was from the hot dishes section that I was served one of the most delicious things I have eaten in a while – black cod den miso, gorgeously caramelised, the fish having the most remarkable texture. It is not for nothing that this is the signature dish, although I had not noticed the price while dining at Nobu. We had been guests of the management, and it was only the next day that my eye alighted on the price per portion – a frightening R415. Wow. To put this in perspective, many dishes are priced between R80 and R210, most far lower than the latter price.
We sampled many things, highlights being a salmon skin salad with a spicy lemon dressing, seared salmon, dried salmon skin and salmon roe; lobster tiradito with coriander, chilli and a yuzu citrus dressing, and for my carnivorous palate, wonderful wing rib and lamb anti cucho. These meats are splendid.
The ending to a Nobu meal is most interesting. Desserts were excellent too – a chocolate bento box, a Suntory whisky cappucino with milk ice cream and coffee brulee, and a passionfruit brulee with sake jelly, coconut sorbet and coconut tuille.
But then you find yourself back to things savoury. To cleanse the palate came a bowl of spicy miso seafood soup, drunk from the bowl, and sushi – salmon, yellowtail, tuna, lobster and scallop – with soy sauce for dipping.
Nobu is worth saving up for and a thing to be relished.
Nobu, One&Only Cape Town, Dock Road, V&A Waterfront
021 431 5111
First published in the Sunday Independent